by Hannah Bisewski and Michael Meigs
Trouble Puppet Theatre Company's brand of inventive, challenging entertainment is so strong here in Austin that the company can fill up the Salvage Vanguard Theatre for two weekend nights with a miscellany from students at their puppetry workshop.
Artistic Director Connor Hopkins shared his workshop for a month with collaborator Caroline Reck of Glass Half Full Productions and her students. Mind you, there were few novices among them -- performers at the Austin Puppet Incident included animators from Trouble Puppet's earlier epic productions of Frankenstein, The Jungle and Riddley Walker, as well as other veterans, grizzled or not. (Hopkins himself, beginning to look like the Old Man of the Mountain with that voluminous beard, presented a short traditional Mr. Punch show).
Organizers kicked off the night with an hour of short puppet films selected from Heather Henson's collection of Handmade Puppet Dreams ("numbers 1,4, 8 and 14"). They constituted a kaleidoscope of fascinating variations on the puppetry medium, with subject matter ranging from nursery rhyme retellings to a comic science fiction homage. Thanks to selections made by Henson and by Hopkins every film offered quirky humor.
The nine scenes of live puppetry entertainment began with a fantastical piece The Miniaturist, adapted from the Millhauser novel In the Reign of Harad IV. To a narration recorded by Austin writer and performer Turk Pipkin, puppeteers working simultaneously in three formats enacted the tale of a mythical master craftsman who became so obsessed in creating miniaturized works of art that they were too small to see -- and eventually too small even for magnifying glasses. The eerie life-size figure of the craftsman appeared at stage right, animated by three puppeteers; stage center showed a shadowbox with silhouettes; at stage left, two marionettists gave life to characters no more than 18 inches tall. You can get a sense of it through a YouTube video posted by Trouble Puppet -- but only as through a glass darkly. In contrast,if you were sitting in the audience, your attention would b keenly fixed on each successive element of the story and the characters would loom enormous in your imagination.
The rest of the night’s scenettes ranged from the traditional (including Hopkins' very traditional Punch and Judy) to the experimental in several different forms. A different puppeteer conceived and elaborated each scene, with imaginative results. Some skits were half-human, half-puppet; others were of a developing form called “environmental puppetry,” pioneered by Reck, a style that aims to evoke the intricacy of the puppets’ environments rather than focusing on the puppets themselves. Concluding the magic hour were Bob's Hardware, an prosaic, appealing story of a man and his dog over a span of years as a small community is overwhelmed by franchises, and Arbor Day, a gleefully sardonic prosecution (perhaps persecution) of the traditional American Christmas tree. Connor Hopkins wearing a bristling, leafy headpiece as the sylvan prosecutor was an awesome sight.
Glass Half Full Theater and Trouble Puppet Theater Company are very Austin. Forget your notions of puppetry as entertainment for kids. These folks have serious, dramatic things to say. The toy-like appearance of their instruments tempts you to smile quietly at the absurdity of the make believe, but the accomplishment of their art provides a visual bliss of brilliant conceits and unpredictable movement.
ALT still owes these pioneers an essay on their epic Riddley Walker of last October, which for reasons beyond our control ALT caught only on closing night. If you missed these two evenings of the Austin Puppet Incident, you can still catch these innovators as they perform the new piece The Crapstall Street Boys four times at the FronteraFest (Januaury 24 - February 4). Otherwise you'll just have to hunker down and hold out for their Macbeth, scheduled for October 21 - November 18.